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Public weighs in on short-term rentals

June 2, 2017 GMT

People who may be impacted by a zoning proposal to regulate short-term rental housing throughout most of Flathead County weighed in during a public hearing before county commissioners Thursday.

Comments were a mix of concerns from the perspectives of both people who operate or manage short-term rentals and those who may neighbor the “vacation rentals.” Some concerns surrounded property value and the burden regulations or fees would impose.

It’s been a 50/50 debate, evidenced by the Flathead Planning Board’s 4-4 vote on the proposal in March, which resulted in no recommendation to the commissioners on the zoning text amendment prior to the public hearing.

The zoning text amendment to Flathead County Zoning Regulations allows short-term rentals through an administrative conditional-use permit in most agricultural and residential zones in addition to Ashley Lake, Labrant/Lindsey Lane, Lakeside, Little Bitterroot Lake, Rogers Lake and West Valley neighborhoods.

Unzoned areas in Flathead County are not affected by the proposal.

Currently it is illegal to operate a rental unit for less than 30 days in zoned areas of Flathead County; however, hundreds of short-term rentals are estimated to be in operation or advertised on a variety of websites and apps such as VRBO (Vacation Home Rentals) and Airbnb.

The proposed zoning amendment, submitted by the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, includes a number of standards for short-term rentals including a maximum occupancy of two people per bedroom (or determined by septic capacity), a minimum of two off-site parking spaces, and providing an on-call emergency contact and notifying neighbors within 150 feet, among other conditions.

This type of use would require a state public accommodation license for a tourist home and would be subject to the state bed tax.

The application process would cost one-time fees totaling $300 or more.

Administrative permits for short-term rental housing would be subject to suspension or revocation if any of the standards are not met if the zoning change is approved.

ERICA WIRTALA, Northwest Montana Association of Realtors public affairs director, maintained the message that the intention of the zoning text amendment is to protect homeowners, travelers and property rights of neighbors while still being an economic benefit.

“There are tons of vacation rentals already in existence in Flathead County,” Wirtala said, noting the regulations would help put a process in place if an issue or complaint arose.

Somers resident Robin Graham said he has rented out his home for about 14 years, typically for 11 weeks during the summer, to supplement a fixed income.

“The reason we started renting our own home is that the taxes have been so extreme,” Graham said.

Graham wasn’t in favor of the regulations that would go into effect if zoning changes were approved.

“One of the things I think we don’t really need is more regulations. The more regulations there are, the more trouble it is for individuals and the more costly it is” Graham said, adding that he’d rather see the industry regulate itself.

Steve Pleasants of Whitefish also has a short-term vacation rental to bring in extra income and while he said he wasn’t opposed to “fixing the problem,” he didn’t feel it was necessary to have to pay fees to have people live in his home.

“My house was built for people to live in,” Pleasants said, later adding, ”[There is] no change in use when I have renters, family stay or friends come up.”

Shannon McNamee, a licensed property manager with Vacasa, a vacation rental property management company, said the regulations that come with the proposed zoning changes would “level the playing field.”

“We play by the rules. We license our homes. We won’t sign homes that aren’t zoned correctly. Other companies do not follow this it puts us at a much more competitively distinct disadvantage when we turn down homes and our competition goes and picks it up,” McNamee said. “We would like to see an even playing field in the Flathead Valley because we are willing to play by the rules if you guys would help set some rules we can play by in these areas.”

Others, such as Jim Goetz who lives between residences in Bigfork and Bozeman, voiced concerns about how short-term rentals could change the feel of a neighborhood or lower property values. Goetz said he’s lived in his Bigfork residence for 29 years and moved there because of the tranquility.

“We’ve heard a lot and I’m sympathetic to people who want to get by, and want to make money, and want to create jobs, but the other side of that coin is that we’ve invested - and a lot of other people have invested - a lot of time, sweat equity, and money into our places, which will deteriorate if we have short-term rentals,” Goetz said.

“There is reason we’ve had for many, many years residential neighborhood protections, high-density, R-1 zoning. What is that reason? It’s to protect the neighborly values of our beautiful neighborhoods,” he said. “I think the proposal is better than just eliminating short-term rentals from the code, at least you have some controls here, but ultimately I think you should just not allow them in R-1,” Goetz said.

Commissioner Phil Mitchell said it was appropriate to have parameters in place for short-term rentals because it’s already an issue that exists. Mitchell said it may even be the case to require a minimum stay for renters, so that people aren’t in and out daily like a hotel. He said rules would protect both neighbors and vacation rental operators.

The conversation on the zoning proposal will continue at the county commissioners meeting that begins at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 6.

For more information and meeting agendas, visit https://flathead.mt.gov/commissioner/.

Reporter Hilary Matheson can be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.